As It Happens

34 years before legalization, New Brunswick's premier was tried for pot possession

As the New Brunswick government enters the legal marijuana business on Wednesday, it's a big about-face for a province that once tried its own premier for possession.

Richard Hatfield's friend says he 'would have laughed' at legalization if he had lived to see it

Former New Brunswick Premier Richard Hatfield, left, reads a summons handed to him by an RCMP officer, right, outside Fredericton city hall in 1984. The late premier was tried in court after a stash of marijuana was found in his luggage. (Jann Van Horne/Canadian Press)
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As the New Brunswick government enters the legal marijuana business on Wednesday, it's a big about-face for a province that once saw its own premier tried for possession.

During a visit from Queen Elizabeth in 1984, the RCMP found a tiny bag of the marijuana while searching Premier Richard Hatfield's luggage before he joined her on a flight. He was never convicted, but his party lost every seat in the legislature in the next election.  

The trial that followed made headlines around the world.

Michael Camp, the chair of the Journalism Department at St. Thomas University, was a friend of Hatfield's. He spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about the late premier and what he might have thought about the Canada's decision to legalize marijuana.

Here is part of their conversation.

How big a story was it at the time that Richard Hatfield was on trial for having possession of marijuana?

It was huge. It was like a stun grenade went off across the province. Really, across Canada, this was a major, major scandal.

And so how was it handled by the media?

The first mention of it in the media was in The Daily Gleaner newspaper in Fredericton. And it just said a high-profile New Brunswick politician is the object of an RCMP inquiry into the discovery of a small quantity of narcotics.

But, at the time, given the kind of reputation that Hatfield already had, speculation fell to him almost right away.

It moved from being a rumour to speculation to confirmation in a fairly short period of time. And the feeling was that someone in the RCMP was keeping someone in the media informed of this.

Princess Anne and New Brunswick Premier Richard Hatfield share a laugh during an official greeting ceremony in Fredericton in 1986. (The Canadian Press)

The trial was a sensational one, wasn't it? First of all, the first judge was dismissed when he made these remarks that they have to treat Premier Hatfield differently. ... So he was dismissed as the judge, and then another judge was in place for the trial. Do you remember that trial?

It's unusual for a judge to talk about an upcoming case. But he went on the CBC morning program in Fredericton to discuss how he was going to handle it in very general terms.

He was trying not to reveal any kind of prejudice. But by saying that he felt that more privileged people should be punished more severely, the defence team on Hatfield's side was able to say we're not going to get a fair hearing.

Not only did [the second judge] dismiss [the case], this judge said he believed that the drugs were planted by a journalist. That was the suggestion, right?

What they were clearly trying to do was raise a reasonable doubt. 

To me, it was an almost unbelievable scenario. I'm surprised that the defence team tried it. But what was even more surprising, even then, to people in New Brunswick, was that the judge fell for it.

And did Richard Hatfield smoke dope?

Of course he did. Whether he smoked dope in New Brunswick, I don't know. I never witnessed him smoking dope in New Brunswick. But he was a typical person of his time. I'm not going to make the argument that he was a perfect person.

But he was a very experimental kind of person. He also liked to live on the edge a little bit. He had a very lively private life, liked to party. They called him "Disco Dick" and all this stuff.

But he was not a serious drug user. Certainly not a big marijuana smoker. He was a drinker. That was his drug of choice, alcohol. But I think he was truly bewildered by this.

It's possible that he did it and then forgot about it, but I got the sense that he honestly believed, in his own mind, that this specific pot was not his own.

And he was about to get on a flight with the Queen, for goodness sake. You'd think he would think twice before you did that.

It's hard to believe that he thought that this would be a good idea — to pack a little pot on the trip.

I think what the pot trial did is change the perception of Richard Hatfield in the public mind so completely that whatever he might have accomplished in a positive sense is completely buried underneath a lot of allegations — proven, unproven— and some of the more serious allegations coming out after his death.

What would Richard Hatfield make of the fact that this province that was so scandalized by his possible possession of drugs is going to be home to provincial marijuana stores?

I think that there's a part of Richard that would have laughed at this. And I think that Hatfield felt the same indifference to the law that we feel today — that it was dumb idea to have the prohibition in the first place.

I think once he stopped laughing, he would say, "Finally, we're being straight with ourselves."

Written by Kevin Robertson and John McGill. Produced by Kevin Robertson. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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